Kenneth Roy Thomson

Kenneth Roy Thomson, businessman, newspaper proprietor, art collector and philanthropist (b at Toronto 1 Sep 1923; d there 12 Jun 2006). The wealthiest Canadian for the last twenty years of his life, Ken Thomson knew as a teenager that his future lay within the business interests of his father, Roy THOMSON, the owner of radio station CFCH and several newspapers. After growing up in Toronto, Ottawa and North Bay, Thomson returned to Toronto with his family in 1937 and enrolled in UPPER CANADA COLLEGE (UCC).

Early Years
In December 1942, Thomson joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was sent to England to work first as an instrument mechanic, and later as an editor for the RCAF magazine, Wings Abroad. In 1947, after earning a Master's degree in Law from St John's College, University of Cambridge, Thomson returned to Canada to work in his father's business. Starting at the bottom, Thomson worked as a reporter for the Timmins Daily Press (1947), as a salesman for the Galt (now Cambridge, Ontario) Reporter (1948-50), and as that paper's general manager (1950-53) before being appointed head of Thomson Newspapers in 1953. For the next 13 years, Thomson lived in Toronto, during which time he married model Nora Marilyn Mavis (1956). They had three children: sons David (1957) and Peter (1959), and daughter Lesley (1965).

Following his father's purchase of London, England's The Times newspaper on 30 September 1966, Thomson moved to London in 1967 to become vice-chairman, and one year later chairman, of Times Newspapers Ltd. During his three-year stay in England, he acquired numerous North American newspapers, including the esteemed Peterborough Examiner in February 1968. Thomson returned to Toronto in 1970 and in 1971 became joint-chairman, with his father, of the Thomson Organization.

The Newspaper and Information Magnate

When Thomson became chairman of what is now the THOMSON CORPORATION following his father's death on 4 August 1976, he raised the value of the company from $500 million (US) to $20 billion by 2002. Although Thomson resigned as chairman in 2002, he remained on the board of directors and oversaw the Thomson Corporation as its value climbed to nearly $30 billion in 2006. The dramatic increase in the value of his company and personal wealth was aided by his father's $5 million investment in British North Sea oil in 1971. By the late 1970s, that investment was generating $200 million dollars annually. Continuing also as a major source of revenue for Thomson were newspapers. In 1979, Thomson Newspapers (a subsidiary of the Thomson Organization) was North America's fourth most profitable newspaper chain, earning $56.5 million, controlling almost one-fifth of Canada's daily newspapers in 1980. Although traditionally viewed as a newspaper company, revenues generated by the Thomson Corporation's printed products were outpaced in 1995 by subscription-based electronic information and databases.

Thomson, who had always kept his home base in Toronto since returning from England in 1970, presided over numerous acquisitions and divestitures, most notably acquiring the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY (1979), FP Publications (1980) and US-based West Publications (1996), and spinning off such assets as oil (1989), travel (1998) and the cornerstone of the Thomson empire, newspapers (2000). The only newspaper Thomson kept was the Globe and Mail, which he had remained proprietor of since purchasing it in 1980. The Times was sold reluctantly in 1981 following a protracted labour dispute with the newspaper's production unions. After 14 years of ownership, Thomson and his father lost over 70 million pounds from their personal fortunes in the newspaper.

The Art Collector and Philanthropist

Aside from his business dealings, Thomson was, starting in the late 1940s, an avid art collector who eventually amassed the most significant private art collection in Canada, including a large number of paintings by Cornelius KRIEGHOFF. Thomson also started collecting works by the GROUP OF SEVEN in 1970 and had 300 works by them in 2002. Three times he set auction records for the most money spent on Canadian art, the last one in February 2002, with the purchase of Paul KANE's Scene in the Northwest, for just over $5 million. Maintaining a very low public profile throughout his life, he enjoyed interacting with people through his art collection. In 1989, he opened the Thomson Gallery in downtown Toronto's Hudson's Bay Company building, where Canadian items from his private collection were displayed. On 19 November 2002, Thomson donated more than 2000 items of art worth an estimated $300 million to the ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, plus an additional $70-million to fund operating costs and the construction of a new wing to house his donation. Aside from giving close to $10-million over twenty years to the construction and maintenance of Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall, this was Thomson's most significant act of public philanthropy.

In 2005, Canadian Business magazine estimated Thomson's wealth at $22.16 billion, more than double the amount of the next richest Canadian, Galen Weston, Jr. However, despite being Canada's wealthiest citizen and a major philanthropist, he was also notoriously frugal. Thomson frequently shopped for bargains on small-ticket items, saying in an interview, "I'd walk a block to save a dime at a discount store." Thomson, who had inherited from his father a life-long peerage and the title 2nd Baron Thomson of Fleet, chose not to sit in the British House of Lords and felt most at home in Toronto.

See alsoTORONTO FEATURE: ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO.